How fear cripples courageous newsrooms

Posted: September 3rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: journalism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | View Comments

To Roger Fidler, 1995 represented a sea change in journalism.

For the last three years, Fidler had been directing the Information Design Lab at Knight-Ridder Inc., the nation’s second-largest newspaper chain.

Up until that point, things were looking good. Under the leadership of Jim Batten, a reporter/editor turned chairman, the company was flourishing. It owned about 30 newspapers across the U.S. and was posting millions in profits.

With Batten at the helm, the company was also investing in R&D amid a period of rapid technological change. From the IDL facility in Boulder, Colo., located right next door to an Apple Computer Inc. lab,  Fidler led a staff of 10 people who were tinkering with a variety of new media techniques. They worked closely with their next-door neighbors to develop content for the Newton, a PDA predecessor. They had close ties with Japanese electronics firms Toshiba and NEC.

Tablet newspaper prototype as envisioned by Roger Fidler in 1981.

Tablet newspaper prototype as envisioned by Roger Fidler in 1981.

The lab was even working, in conjunction with these manufacturers, on a prototype tablet that could revolutionize the way citizens get their news. A pet project of Fidler’s since he originally envisioned it in a 1981 Associated Press Managing Editors special report, he imagined a device that would fit seamlessly into the lives of readers while providing the same familiarity of their local newspaper.

Portable, flat-screen displays could have all of the characteristics previously given for newspapers and more. These would be truly electronic newspapers that could be continuously updated so that readers would no longer be tied to the fixed morning or evening delivery.

“At the time, people thought I was totally crazy, and very few people within the industry thought that would even be possible,” Fidler told me in a phone interview last week. “That was actually before the introduction of IBM PCs.”

A promotional video the company released in 1994 showed how such a device would work, providing users with the ability to go deeper into stories, customize their reading experience and update the stories via kiosks installed in airports, malls and other public places.

Almost 15 years after his original prediction, Fidler was still working with some of the relative problems of creating the device. The display was of particular concern.

“Getting a display that gives a comparable reading experience to ink on paper has turned out to be much more difficult to do than was originally anticipated,” he said.

But before IDL was able to produce a single product, Batten died of brain cancer in June 1995.

An ink-stained Medici, Batten had been the patron of IDL and a fervent believer in the importance of innovation in the newsroom.

“He was a strong supporter of developing skunkworks, or places where ideas could be developed without necessarily a demand that you always had to be producing something that impacted the bottom line,” Fidler said.

Knight-Ridder’s new CEO, Tony Ridder, didn’t share Batten’s enthusiasm.

“[Tony Ridder] had a very different agenda. His main agenda, being mainly an accountant, was to improve the bottom line and to convince investors that this was a good stock to invest in and raise the stock prices,” Fidler said. “He didn’t really see much value in putting money into essentially a futures lab for Knight-Ridder.”

It didn’t take long for the new chairman to shut down the lab in 1995. To Fidler, who declined another Knight-Ridder job at a new digital division in the burgeoning Silicon Valley, Ridder’s move was a symptom of a greater problem beginning to take root in the industry.

“I think that’s one of the big changes that took place in newspapers,” he said. “We moved from the business of journalism to the business of profits, and the journalism took more and more of a backseat to trying to attract more investors and increase the bottom line.”

Fidler decided to take his dream elsewhere.

Out-innovated

About 15 years after Knight-Ridder first released that promotional video, it began circulating the Web through news stories and blog posts. The occasion? The early 2009 release of the Kindle DX, touted by some media analysts and desperate newsfolk as a potential savior of newspapers.

The device joined similar readers, like Sony’s and previous models from Amazon. The devices still had no color though, and had not become quite as ubiquitous as Fidler thought.

He said there’s a good reason why e-book readers on the market today bear such a striking similarity to his original vision.

“What I’ve been told is that almost everyone working on e-readers today had seen that video and said it was one of the things that inspired them,” Fidler said.

But the result of that inspiration has been frustrating to some news executives. Dallas Morning News CEO and Publisher James Moroney whined to the Senate in May that he wasn’t seeing enough revenue from the 30-70 split with Amazon over Kindle content.

Moroney should probably take those concerns to Ridder.

The CEO’s 1995 decision to close the company’s R&D lab had far reaching implications not just on the news business, but on the electronics companies that partnered with them.

“About the time the lab closed, Toshiba had created a tablet that met most of the expectations we had come up with for what a tablet should be like, but they never manufactured it,” Fidler said. “I had learned later that the reason Toshiba and several other Japanese companies backed away from developing tablets is when they saw that Knight-Ridder closed the lab, they interpreted that as newspapers are no longer interested in the approach, and so they shifted their attention to other products.”

Even then, Fidler said he wasn’t necessarily interested in developing the hardware itself. He was more concerned with developing the file formats and presentation techniques that would position newspapers for an easy transition onto tablets and e-book readers.

“We had security analysts telling us that the lab itself was worth two to three points on the stock market for Knight-Ridder, which is a significant amount of money, because it gave the investors confidence that Knight-Ridder was looking to the future and preparing for the future,” Fidler said.

A diseased industry

Newspapers are no strangers to innovation. In the last few centuries, they’ve adapted quickly to new technology like the telegraph, the telephone and new printing techniques.

But Fidler points out that most of these changes are associated with fear.

“Innovation in newspapers tends to go in cycles,” he said. “Usually, it’s more often than not based on a threat that is perceived.”

The emergence of radio, for example, led to the evolution of investigative and compartmentalized journalism. Television pushed papers to infuse their copy with color, graphics and an emphasis on design that culminated in the founding of USA Today.

“I think newspapers are sometimes given a bad rap,” Fidler said. “I think they’ve been much more innovative than what they’re given credit for and they have been at the forefront.”

That’s true even for the Web. The new job Fidler turned down at Knight-Ridder would have placed him in San Jose, home of the first newspaper publish its content online, the Mercury News.

But the problem was follow-through.

“One of the things that’s sometimes stifled newspapers is that much of it has been to try to protect their printing press and their investments that they have in the production and delivery of newspapers, and more defensive than truly entrepreneurial and innovative,” Fidler said.

And now something has changed.

Following the example of the cost-cutting Ridder, most newspapers are reverting backward instead of trying something new.

Serious journalists, not just businessmen, are suggesting charging high prices for online news, even a pullback from the Web altogether. But even with this strategy, most newspapers (not all) are too afraid to go it alone. Instead, they’re cleverly skirting anti-trust laws with a consortium that will allow several papers to charge online at once.

Managers have also taken hatchets to their newsrooms, cutting down on the investigative, explanatory journalism that Fidler sees as “the heart of newspapers.”

Both techniques fail to recognize a change in behavior on the part of the audience. Not only are consumption habits changing, but technology has rendered news an almost worthless commodity in a monetary sense.

Bloggers don’t need to take out a 30-year loan on a printing press. Readers can get AP content just about everywhere. And, as has been the case since the 1950s, the big print headlines are largely old news by the time the paper arrives.

It takes little talent to observe and repeat. But indispensable journalism is different.

“What newspapers have undervalued are the stories where reporters have spent the time working on gathering the information, putting it together and trying to make sense out of it,” Fidler said. “Breaking news items on what’s happening, that’s a commodity that you can get anywhere and that probably should be free, but those are the short bits of information.”

So they’ve fallen back on the circulation model. The New York Times, for example, now gets as much revenue from selling papers as from advertising.

Fear can often be used to a company’s advantage, encouraging change. But not in this case.

Fear has crippled journalism, an industry ideologically defined by courage.

Editors ask their journalists every day to show that courage in their reporting. Readers demand it. But for some reason, no one demands it from the executives.

Fidler saw this coming, and said it was discouraging.

“I had a lot of concern about what would happen if newspapers weren’t more actively engaged in developing these digital technologies and if we allowed others to take the lead,” he said. “I was concerned that somewhere in the first decade of the 21st century we’d see a brain drain from newspapers to online services and other digital publishing approaches, which we’ve seen.”

So he went his own way.

Toward a digital future

After turning down the job at Knight-Ridder, Fidler traveled abroad to consult with companies about the tablet. He then took a position at Kent State to work hands on with new liquid crystal technology. At the University of Missouri in 2004, Fidler began academic research on a project called eMprint, which would provide downloadable copies of the newspaper in electronic form, complete with rich interactivity.

A few years later, Amazon released the Kindle in a market sparsely populated with e-book readers.

Along the way, Fidler says he never abandoned the idea he sketched out almost three decades ago.

“I didn’t give up,” he said. “When Knight-Ridder was doing its testing for executives in the late 1970s — I had to go through the program — I was ranked as one of the most tenacious people they had come across. I don’t give up easily.”

He’s now the program director for digital publishing at the Reynolds Journalism Institute and the head of the RJI Digital Publishing Alliance, which includes more than 30 major newspapers like The New York Times and USA Today.

He doesn’t fully blame newspapers for the trouble they’re in and says he doesn’t think newspapers are any less innovative than any other industry. Change, after all, is hard in an established business. And the economic situation hasn’t helped either.

But Fidler said he is seeing more openness to new ideas in the newsroom, especially as the major newspapers start to try new things. The New York Times even has a dedicated R&D group, much like IDL in the 90s.

“I do believe we will see digital publishing grow in the future and see it become a popular medium,” Fidler said. “It may not be the established newspapers that are around today that are the leaders in that.”

The question the industry must answer now, he said, doesn’t concern the future of newspapers, but of journalism.

“Some people misinterpret,” he said. “They assume that if you move from ink on paper to a digital display, you’re somehow killing newspapers. But I think there’s greater recognition now that that’s not the case, that newspapers are not dependent on ink on paper. A newspaper is about the gathering and packaging and delivering of content.”


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